By Emily Blake and Sergio Oramas of Pandora
Most of us can likely recognize an ‘80s song from three cars away. Nowadays, those signature sounds — the heavy reverb, snare drum and extravagant power ballads - come off, well, so ‘80s. Chances are, our music will sound just as dated 30 years from now.
Changes in music happen rather gradually, with artists trying out new sounds, then other artists expanding on those new sounds, all pushing the sound of popular music further away from what it was and closer to what it’s becoming. If you have an acute ear, you may be able to notice these minor changes in music for yourself.
Luckily at Pandora, we have many acute (and often classically trained) ears to keep up with the ever-changing sounds of popular music. But we also have data. Pandora’s Music Genome Project is the biggest human analysis of music ever undertaken, and involves our music analysts characterizing every song on Pandora with up to 450 distinct attributes including genre, instruments, mood, lyrical content, tempo and timbre. That means we have a ton of data at our disposal to give us an all-encompassing– and yes, totally nerdy — look at how music is changing over time.
So what were the changes in music this year? What are the sounds that were *so* 2018? Below, we’ve dissected a few of the biggest trends of 2018, combining our data with knowledge from our tuned-in curators. So, put your headphones in and push up your glasses as we dive into the Sounds of 2018.
Rap and Latin take a bigger piece of the pie
There may be no song more quintessentially 2018 than “I Like It.” The song — an intercontinental alliance between Bronx-born rapper Cardi B, Puerto Rican trap artist Bad Bunny and Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin — was a global hit, and the third most-spun song of the year on Pandora. But the track, which features a sample of Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo hit “I Like It Like That,” was not just enormously popular. Looking back, it also encapsulates many of the trends of 2018 pop music in one catchy-as-hell package –among them, the increased share that both rap and Latin had of overall listening.
Above, an analysis of the top-spinning songs of 2018 shows that rap songs accounted for roughly 40 percent of the top hits, up from 33 percent in 2017. Looking back on the top 5 percent over the last 10 years, it was 2014 that hip-hop first emerged as the genre with the most hits, overtaking pop. But then, its share was just over 18 percent, only narrowly edging out pop by .3 percent.
Latin came in second place in 2018, with 19.3 percent of the top-performing songs being Latin tracks. That’s a slight increase from last year’s 18.7 percent — which is no small task when you consider that last year was the year of Despacito.” In addition to “I Like It,” songs like “X” by Nicky Jam and J Balvin and “Dura” by Daddy Yankee were ubiquitous. Pop songs, meanwhile, saw a slight dip in their share of the top tracks, from 14 percent last year to 13.5 percent this year.
Pop embraces the cross-genre ‘feat.’
Another trend we can glean from “I Like It,” and 2018 pop as a whole? Despite whatever is happening around it, in music, we really can all get along. In 2018, artists went “feat.” first, collaborating more and with more diverse artists than ever.
We started seeing a noticeable increase in the number of collaborations in pop in 2014, and now, features are everywhere. On any given week on the Pandora Top Spins Charts, as many as a third of the tracks could be collaborations. In 2018, that trend not only continued — with 30 of the top 100 pop songs being collaborations — but these collaborations started getting more and more diverse. A collaboration between electropop streaming darling Bebe Rexha and country stars Florida Georgia Line — originally released in 2017 — hit #2 of the Pandora Top Spins Chart in February. Rising pop singer Julia Michaels released a song with rising Oakland rapper Trippie Redd. And “Taki Taki” was a harmonious and #fireee linkup between American pop star Selena Gomez, Puerto Rican reggaeton/trap artist Ozuna and — you guessed it — Cardi B.
Pandora data confirms that, in 2018, artists have been reaching across genres to collaborate more than ever before. An analysis of the year’s 100 top-spinning pop songs shows that 2018 scores the genre’s collaborations were the more diverse than they have ever been. This year, 30% o the total artists credited or featured in th 100 top-spinning pop songs were not pop artists. That’s up from last year’s “diversity score” of 26 percent.
Tiana Lewis, head of pop programming at Pandora, says it reflects a wider trend of the walls between genres coming down.
“Pop music has been more diverse than ever, from Latin with hip hop production and an English R&B sound to make one of the biggest songs in the country. Or ‘Girls LIke You,’ which starts like a normal Maroon 5 track, but then you have Cardi B to round the sound out, and that held the top spot for weeks. Or Maren Morris and Grey where you have a country artist giving full on pop vibes,” she said. “Welcome, folks. That’s pop music.”
Female rappers show up
2017 was the year that put Cardi B on the map thanks to the success of her money-moving breakout single “Bodak Yellow”, but 2018 was the year that she ripped up that map and forged her own path with the release of her debut studio album, Invasion of Privacy. Cardi not only saw nine of her own singles hit the Top Spins chart, but she was a featured artist on an additional seven tracks that went on to hit the chart. In total, Cardi B’s songs have spent nearly 400 weeks on the Top Spins Chart — more than any other female rapper, and not too far behind Drake.
And she wasn’t the only female rapper churning out hits: Newer female rap acts like Miami duo City Girls and Saweetie broke through on the Top Spins Chart, too. And on the Pandora Trendsetters and Pandora Predictions Chart, which track the up-and-coming Pandora artists most likely to break, 15 female rappers made their debuts in 2018, compared to eight in 2017.
The graph above shows a notable increase in the proportion of top rap songs by women in 2018. Women accounted for nearly 9 percent of the top spinning rap songs in 2018, the highest proportion so far.
“Women have just really been holding their own this year,” Lewis says. “City Girls, they’ve got such a strong Miami vibe, it’s really like a Trina moment. And Bri Steves, she was a college student and Kendrick Lamar brought her on stage at Made in America. Saweetie is another one who’s starting to blow up — she’s killing it and just doing everything right.”
Country experiments with new sounds
Country pop is nothing new. But the blend of genres that country up-and-comer Kacey Musgraves brought in 2018 with her album Golden Hour? That was something new — or at least, something we haven’t seen in country music in a really, really long time. On her boundary-pushing fourth studio album, Musgraves had not only the synth-laden “Butterflies,” but she also had “High Horse,” which one could argue is just as much a disco song as it is a country track.
We’ve pointed out before how streaming has opened the door for country artists to experiment with new sounds, branching out from the mold that traditional country radio had in place. And never before had we seen those boundaries being pushed than this year. Across the board, country music is starting to be more influenced by genres like electronic, hip-hop and funk, while genres that have traditionally had a heavy influence — like folk and rock — have started to gradually have a less pronounced influence.
Looking at the presence of different genres in country — based on the average scores in the top 5 percent of country songs from each year — you’ll see how electronic, hip-hop, and funk have all seen notable increases in their influence in country. Meanwhile, medium rock — one of the genres that most closely aligns with country — has seen a decrease in its impact on the genre. Additionally, country rap — led by artists like Upchurch — saw an increase in spins of 1,150% year over year in 2018.
“Streaming has really opened the door for country artists to be more versatile, to try out new sounds and borrow sounds from genres that previously didn’t have much of a presence in country,” says Ron Nenni, director of Music Programming at Pandora. “The sounds we hear in country newcomers like Kacey Musgraves and Sam Hunt are a good indication of where the genres heading, and how far it’s come.”
Want a sonic rundown of this year’s trends? Head to the Sounds of 2018 playlist here.